by Mike Santora, Associate Editor
Couplings connect driving elements to driven elements. But is there a connection beyond the mechanical? We asked four industry experts to give us their take on connectivity, the Internet of Things and its potential impact on the couplings industry.
To hear its supporters speak of it, the fully realized Industry 4.0 factory will be a dazzling ecosystem of interconnectivity. Machines and components upon sub-components will all sing in a chorus of efficiency. For the faithful, there’s the expectation that the next 20 years will usher in the dawn of a new industrial revolution—many machines and components are already connected in self-contained units.
If the last few decades of digital technology have taught us anything, it’s that the complexity of data transmission is growing exponentially. Mix that reality with the rascally allure of the possible, and it’s easy to see how the IoT has some people dreaming big.
But the question of where reality collides with hype is the real heart of the conversation on IoT. Within the couplings industry, there is a mixed response on what we can expect in the next few years. To clarify the situation we spoke with Ross Rivard, president of Ringfeder Power Transmission; Andy Lechner, product manager for R + W America; Steven Elliott, Plant 1 manager at OEP Couplings; and Candace Olivier, sales manager for System Components Inc.
IoT evolution not revolution
One opinion is that we are not as far along with IoT in couplings as some would have us believe. Our panel weighs in.
How is the IoT impacting the couplings industry right now?
Rivard: As is happening across a lot of industries, information availability is running rampant right now. The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Is that information availability taking the place of product or engineering or application expertise?”
Once somebody gets the taste of “press this button and I can download this information,” and views themselves suddenly as an expert, it really becomes problematic when you’re trying to find the right solution for your customer. Sensors and couplings have been talked about for years and years and years, and I’ve really not seen a great deal of that activity in the traditional sense of disc couplings or anything of that nature. Where we are starting to see an uptick in activity is where you have a coupling attached to another device such as a safety coupling or a torque limiter. In these configurations, confirmation of a device’s activation can be sent across either a great distance or a number of other pieces of equipment. This communication ensures corrective action has taken place to get the equipment back up and running.
Elliott: I think that it’s a fad. Some manufacturers are apparently adding these remote sensors to couplings. We have massive couplings and high value equipment. We do make some couplings for extractive industries—oil extraction and fracking equipment—but we make smaller couplings that aren’t going to have anything like that in them. I can understand the utility of this for some large couplings, but at the same time, I’m reminded of about 10 years ago … They started having a lot of advances in touch screens and in the fabrication of touch screens.
Suddenly we saw touch screens on everything. We saw them on machine tools, and home washing machines and dishwashers and absurd things. It was because designers thought, “We can get these touchscreens for $8 from China, so let’s just stick them on this dishwasher.” After a few years, people realized that there’s no advantage to it … so now you don’t see as many. Now you see a dishwasher with a touchscreen on it and go, “Oh that’s from 2003.” It dates it.
I have an impression that we’re going to have lots of couplings that can transmit all this data, large amounts of data that will never be observed or used by a human in any way. If a coupling transmits its workload and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? Maybe the only sound it makes is when it fails mechanically, and then it goes “clunk” after a couple million cycles because the designers were more focused on this momentary trend, this fad, than they were on producing something that’s mechanically sound. So at OEP, we’re just going to focus on dumb couplings. We’re going to make sure that they’re well-made and that they perform the tasks that are typically required of shaft couplings.
Olivier: I really don’t think I have seen much demand for that in the markets that we service at least.
The common sense of sensors
Some are more optimistic about IoT potential. The presence of sensor technology is still spreading within the industry.
How are sensors affecting IoT and the couplings industry?
Lechner: I think, just like a lot of other components and systems manufacturers in our industry, they’re opening up their minds and thinking about how customers might benefit from the incorporation of advanced sensing technology in their products. From a conditioned monitoring perspective, R + W is no exception here. We do not officially have any standard products that incorporate sensing technology, but we have delivered that in special solutions, especially torque measurement. There should be quite a bit more coming from us in the future.
So there is a demand for advancing sensor technology in couplings?
Lechner: Yeah, I think it’s definitely on the way. I recently read some quotes from a prominent representative of the bearing industry who predicted that in the future, just about every bearing would have a wire coming out of it. If that’s the case, I think couplings are going to be right there along with them, especially because they can be engineered to be a sort of weak link when a machine is starting to get old or in need of lubrication maintenance.
With couplings, I think it’s increasingly common for users to have an interest in torque measurement at the coupling. The technology is at the point where a signal can be sent wirelessly from inside the coupling to a remote base station, so it packages more nicely than it would have in years past.
Do you have any thoughts on why some are trying to push this IoT idea more than others when the reality seems to be a few years behind?
Lechner: Yes. I think it’s just that there’s a lot of inertia in our industry. It takes a long time for everyone to change their ways and adopt a new technology along the supply chain. If it’s going to be a reality in three years, it’s really time to start getting serious about it now in terms of product development. I think a lot of companies are pouring a lot of resources into determining the best and most reasonable ways to incorporate sensing technology into simple mechanical devices, but we’re really just getting started at this point.
Certainly for special projects we can layer strain gauges into a coupling and make it a torque measurement device, but as of today that’s a small fraction of what’s demanded of our product on a regular basis.
Where we should be looking
If IoT is not where engineers need to be focusing their attention, where then? What can they be doing better with couplings?
Rivard: It goes back to your question earlier about the IoT. Engineers focus on an item. In the sense of couplings, you tend to focus on one of the misalignment capabilities. Whether it’s an axial misalignment or radial misalignment or whatever, what we really have to be cognizant of is the interplay between the misalignments.
Equipment ages, products shift, they settle, a lot of different conditions can change. Where you thought you had your axial misalignment taken care of, well, now if it interacts with an angular misalignment, then the way the whole product is operating changes. You need to really look at all the misalignment capabilities, and the interplay between those, to make sure that you’re specifying the right piece of equipment.
Elliott: The same thing that I’ve always noticed is that engineers tend to default to a particular type of coupling with which they’re familiar. There are a lot of engineers that when they think shaft coupling, they think jaw coupling. Maybe they’ve used a helical coupling in the past, and so they’re comfortable with that. They’re familiar with it. They never go looking for what other types are out there. If you just separate couplings into the basic types, there are at least a dozen. You’ve got disc couplings and oldham couplings and all these other variations. There are mechanical engineers that aren’t even aware of some of these types of couplings. They just go to their comfort zone.
Lechner: What I think happens a lot is they rely too heavily on the monitoring and perimeter programming in a machine’s drive system. For example, limiting the current that can be provided to a motor, which is easily calculated and converted into torque, does not actually mean that you are limiting the torque that will exist in that drive access or that machine access. Basically, once you have a machine moving, you have masses moving; there’s energy there that needs to be released, say in the event of a jam up or a collision. That energy is independent of being supplied through the drive amp, so I think a lot of people forget that there can be quite greater forces at play in their machine than what they’ve programmed it to produce. Just something to keep in mind. Of course that can reflect back onto couplings and gears and shafts and put them through quite a bit more stress I think than a lot of users realize.
Rivard: Again, I keep cycling back to the IoT; the availability of information is both a blessing and a curse. You take that, and you overlay it, or lay it on the fact that more companies are trying to do more with less people, people are looking at a simple solution or the quickest solution. The engineering community really needs to continue to reach out to the manufacturers and use the expertise that they can bring to bear given the applications. The end-users, the OEMs, they need to come back to the manufacturers and use that expertise and make sure they are getting the right product that’s going to solve whatever the problem is versus just a band-aid or stop-gap.
Ringfeder Power Transmission
System Components Inc.